Plans for a museum to showcase the H.L. Hunley have been in the works since shortly after the Civil War submarine was pulled from sand and silt just outside the Charleston Harbor more than a decade ago.
But much remains unclear about the museum, including when construction will begin, how large its building will be and where the money will come from to pay for it.
The former Hunley Commission decided in 2004 to build a $40 million museum on the former Navy Base in North Charleston. It chose that location over other proposed sites in downtown Charleston and Mount Pleasant. The city of North Charleston landed the deal with a pledge to donate the land on which the museum will be built, contribute $13 million to construction and $50,000 annually to restoring the submarine.
The commission since has been folded into the Charleston Naval Complex Redevelopment Authority/Naval Base Museum Authority.
Little has happened since the decision was made to build the museum on the former Navy Base.
Robert Ryan, the authority’s executive director, said the plan for the museum right now is “kind of a rudderless ship on a balmy sea.”
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said the city no longer can contribute $13 million. That plan was based on the city’s ability to raise the money from a tax-increment financing district on the city’s land on the base. But the state took that land, Summey said, so the city no longer can come up with the money.
Right now, the authority has $20 million to $25 million on hand that isn’t already committed and could be used for the museum if the authority approves the expense, Ryan said. “That’s halfway there.”
But he said the city hasn’t turned over land to the authority on which to build the museum.
Summey said land on the base north of Noisette Creek now belongs to Palmetto Railways, a division of the state Commerce Department. He expects the land to be turned over to the city at the end of the year. The city then will turn over a parcel to the authority for the museum.
Ryan said he’s not sure how the museum plan ultimately will turn out, adding, “It might not be a $40 million museum.”
Kellen Correia, president of Friends of Hunley, said it will take five or six more years to restore the submarine. That work is being done by Clemson University’s Restoration Institute in the Warren Lasch Conservation Center on the former Navy Base.
That means there’s time to raise money for the museum, she said, adding that the museum isn’t just for the Hunley. It will be a building that also houses the state-owned Maritime Museum Collection, an extensive collection of more than 8,000 19th century maritime artifacts.
“It’s absolutely going to happen,” Randall Burbage, secretary and treasurer of the authority’s board, said of the museum. The Friends of the Hunley group will apply for grants and ask for donations if there’s a funding shortfall, he said.
Burbage, who was a member of the former Hunley Commission, said the Hunley is a popular attraction now, and will continue to be in the future. Hundreds of people come to see it every weekend, even though it’s soaking a large tank of sodium hydroxide.
Correia said nobody is sure yet how the Hunley will be displayed after the conservation work is complete. It might have to continue to sit in a tank of sodium hydroxide, or might be protected in some other climate-controlled way.
“You’re not going to be able to walk up and put your hands on the Hunley,” she said.